Marin’s Holy Mountain

By Karen Nakamura
This piece was written by MarinScope staff reporter Karen Nakamura in 1999:

She was a beautiful young Miwok maiden in love with an Indian prince. When he abandoned her, she walked to the top of the mountain nearby and died of heartbreak. As she sobbed, the mountain heard her intense sorrow and took pity. When she finally died, the mountain was so moved it changed its form, taking on the supine shape of her body and becoming the Sleeping Lady, our dear Mt. Tamalpais.

Watercolor painting of Mount Tamalpais, by William McMurtrie, 1855.
Source: Wikimedia

Mt. Tamalpais is an everyday presence to Marinites. It is the ground we walk on, whether on its peak, its foothills or its lovely meadows and beaches. It supports and nourishes us, giving us protection from the onslaught of numbing fogs and shading us from fiery heat. Its cooling water quenches our thirst. Its soil feeds our bodies. Its beauty sustains our souls.

Mt. Tam is more than a provider, a mother, a servant to our petty needs. To the Lakota Sioux, Mt. Tamalpais is the Holy Right Eye of the Great Turtle. Many tribes have a legend that we all live on the back of a Great Turtle which forms the North American Continent. The tail of the Great Turtle is Florida, the mouth is the San Francisco Bay. The "holy" right eye is Mt. Tamalpais. The left eye is Mount Diablo in the East Bay.

For this reason, great leaders of the Lakota were dragged on pole litters across the country and buried in Mt. Tam's foothills. This tradition is part of the reason there are so many burial mounds in Marin.

The Fairfax Pavilion, for instance, sits directly on top of one of the mounds. There was a bitter debate about this problem in the late seventies. It was finally resolved when the pavilion was awarded unofficial caretakership, both the mound and the pavilion being historical social sites.

The San Geronimo Valley also has burial mounds on the west side of White's Hill. San Geronimo is interesting in other aspects. While the valley is actually named after the Catholic Saint Geronimo, in the hearts of many of its longtime residents, it's the valley of Geronimo, the proud and defiant Apache who stood up against the onslaught of the United States military, San Geronimo's Valley.

The Hopis from Arizona used to travel up the West Coast gathering supplies. They always tried to make a stop at Agate Beach in Bolinas to gather Kachina shells. These are the pyramid shaped white mussel shells found in the area. These shells were considered very religious and worn only by the Kachina dancers and dolls. Grandfather David Monongye, the Hopi elder and holder of the Prophesies, gathered the shells as late as 1973 by offering prayers and sweet grass offerings to the Goddess of the Ocean to deliver up a good supply. Needless to say, that while on other occasions the beach offered few gifts, on this occasion the beach was filled with little white mounds of shells.

During the 1980s, as more and more people from all over the world discovered the quiet beauty of the woods surrounding the peak, several momentous religious events happened on the Mountain. The Dalai Lama of Tibet paid a visit to the mountain several times, to stay at the Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm and another time to pray for peace with others at the very peak.

The highly publicized Harmonic Convergence of 1989 had Mt. Tamalpais as one of the center points of the convergence. People gathered from around the West to meditate in its woods and held ceremonies for the healing of the earth.

Even today, loved ones will carry the ashes of their loved ones deep into the forests of redwood to bury their dead. That the mountain has given solace to more than the Sleeping Lady is evident to all who have walked her paths and shared the quiet peace of her lakes.